Indian Nonprofits Are Scaling, Despite Funding Scarcity

To reach more than 250 million people who survive on less than $2 a day, India’s nonprofits must find ways to extend their reach amid staggering challenges. The most paramount is overcoming a dearth of funding.

The government isn’t of much help. It spends just 1.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare, less than half of China’s (3.1 percent) and Brazil’s (3.8 percent) contributions. Similarly, government school funding lags other fast-emerging economies.

Multiply the massive need by India’s extraordinary diversity — including 150 languages, 2,000-plus ethnic groups, and every major religion — and you approach the apotheosis of daunting.

Yet some India nonprofits are scaling up, despite scarce resources. The Bridgespan Group spent six months studying 20 innovative Indian nonprofits. Without huge infusions of money, they somehow managed to increase services to hundreds of thousands, even millions of people in need.

Reduced to its essentials, the methods they reveal involves thinking about audacious goals in ways both practical and visionary. This entails adopting certain “mind-sets.” Research surfaced five organizations, which just might help nonprofits everywhere extend their reach:

1) The Denominator Mind-Set: Focusing on the need while remaining flexible in the execution.

Thinking of a social-change effort as a fraction, the denominator (the larger number below the line) represents the size of the need, while the numerator stands for what the organization is accomplishing.

Denominator thinkers, because they think big, believe a partial solution trumps a perfect one, and they are quick to reset when growth strategies falter. One such denominator thinker is Ramji Raghavan, founder and chairman of Agastya International Foundation, an organization delivering science programs to more than 1.5 million rural schoolchildren annually.

After being held up at gunpoint more than 30 years ago, Raghavan began pondering what some call the “resumé versus the eulogy versions” of one’s life. He left Citibank to fulfill a secret dream to build a rural school that would produce curious, driven students with the skills and creativity to confront India’s most vexing challenges.

Flexibility has been his modus operandi ever since. When the dot-com bust vaporized funding for his dream school, Raghavan outfitted a borrowed van with scientific models and instruments and drove it to rural government schools. Concepts like gravity, solar and lunar eclipses, and planetary orbits came to life inside.

The organization has since expanded to 175 mobile labs operating in 18 states. In the process, along came Labin- a-Box and Lab-on-a-Bike. Raghavan’s serial innovations eventually helped him fulfill his original vision: Agastya’s Creativity Lab campus, a center for teaching and learning, today includes 13 laboratories, a planetarium, an art and culture facility, and a media lab. The campus takes in 600 visiting school children daily.

2) The Dignity Mind-Set: Pursuing a “people-over-program” philosophy.

An example of this is Goonj, which annually delivers more than 3,000 tons of secondhand clothes and used household materials to hundreds of thousands of India’s poorest. From New Delhi, Goonj has expanded to 22 states, where it partners with more than 250 grassroots organizations.

Nearly two decades ago, Goonj’s founder, Anshu Gupta, journeyed to the earthquake- devastated village of Jamak in the state of Uttarakhand. He noticed an elderly woman whose home had been flattened. She and neighbors were boiling water over an open fire when Gupta walked by. The woman offered a cup of tea. The message: I’ve lost everything, but I still have my humanity. When Gupta launched Goonj in 1998, he vowed to treat every participant with equal dignity.

Goonj also believes that people in need don’t want charity; they want respect. Gupta remembers that when aid workers brought a load of used clothing, they tossed the bales off the back of the truck. He determined then that instead of debasing the material by giving it away, he would treat discards as a form of currency.

Goonj’s Cloth for Work program organizes work projects in rural villages — such as repairing roads and building bridges — and pays villagers for their labor with used clothing and other secondhand wares. When bottom-of-the-pyramid people earn clothing for their hard work, they free up scant income for food, health, or other expenses. Thus, urban discards become a valuable commodity for India’s poorest. On the surface, it would appear that Goonj is in the business of collecting and distributing clothes. But Goonj’s real mission, it turns out, is to build a parallel economy that’s based on trash, not cash.

3) The Radical Frugality Mind-Set: Using frugality as a way to reach many more people.

Every school day, Akshaya Patra prepares and delivers hot lunches to 1.6 million children, at 13 cents per meal. The Indian government pays 60 percent of that cost. By 2020, Akshaya Patra aims to serve 5 million children, while reducing or even eliminating its cost.

“Here’s my end game,” explained Shridhar Venkat, Akshaya Patra’s chief executive officer. “Can we run this program with just the government subsidy, so we can feed as many children as we want?”

To even approach its goal, Venkat needed to cut costs while producing more food faster. He created a way: Treat the centralized kitchen as a “mother hub” and surround it with four “spoke kitchens.” The hub processes the food, and the smaller satellites do the final preparation, packaging, and delivery. The model has doubled the capacity of a centralized kitchen while reducing the average capital cost per child by about 30 percent.

4) The Innovative Hiring Mind-Set: Searching for human capital in overlooked corners of the talent pool.

Aravind Eye Care System annually performs more than 300,000 cataract and other eye surgeries at sliding payment scales down to zero. It recruits its female nurses mostly from rural communities. Aravind trains and brings the women into the formal economy. These mid-level ophthalmic personnel (MLOP) do everything except diagnose and operate.

Executives at Aravind know that they won’t often find people with the proper credentials, so they hire MLOPs largely on their character and demeanor—that is, their ability to empathize with patients and their joy in serving others.

5) The Collaborative Mind-Set: Using government agencies to extend reach.

Rajesh Singh is chief operating officer of the MAMTA Health Institute for Mother and Child, which protects the reproductive health of marginalized adolescent girls and women in 19 Indian states (as well as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Burundi). He says it’s “in our DNA to involve the government.”

Organizations work with policymakers while their programs are still formative. In 2005, when the Indian government decided to address the health needs of the country’s 253 million adolescents, MAMTA seized an opportunity to develop a training module that educates teenage girls on sexually transmitted diseases. It became an integral part of India’s National Adolescent Health Programme. The module’s success earned MAMTA the opportunity to build on the effort, by conducting a master training module for senior medical officers.

An overriding attitude might be adaptability.

Kaivalya Education Foundation recruits “Gandhi Fellows” from India’s top universities to spend two years working with the principals of government schools to help improve school performance. Last year, Fellows worked at more than 1,200 schools, potentially impacting 250,000 children.

But in the next five years, Kaivalya’s leader, Aditya Natraj, a former finance consultant for consulting firm KPMG, wants to reach 10,000 schools serving approximately 2 million children.

To nail that number, Natraj understands that what works today is insufficient for tomorrow. He’s rolling out a new strategy by moving his lens up the organizational chart, from school principals to district administrators. Natraj’s logic: By helping those educators who oversee India’s sprawling districts become more effective, he’ll make a difference on a far larger scale.

Like many of the restless, serial innovators, Natraj isn’t wedded to any single strategy, no matter how successful. He reasons that every high-flying growth model will eventually hit its peak and succumb to gravity’s pull. Before it does, he’ll fire up a different rocket and aim for the stars once again.

Soumitra Pandey and Rohit Menezes are partners in The Bridgespan Group’s Mumbai office. Swati Ganeti, who externed at Bridgespan Mumbai in 2016, is a consultant at Bain & Company’s New Delhi office.